Women: anti-war softies or pro-war nags?

Robert Dreyfuss has an ill-advised piece at The Nation in which he tries to pin US intervention in Libya on the gender of Obama’s advisors – namely that three women pushed for military action:

We’d like to think that women in power would somehow be less pro-war, but in the Obama administration at least it appears that the bellicosity is worst among Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power. All three are liberal interventionists, and all three seem to believe that when the United States exercises military force it has some profound, moral, life-saving character to it. Far from it. Unless President Obama’s better instincts manage to reign in his warrior women—and happily, there’s a chance of that—the United States could find itself engaged in open war in Libya, and soon.

First we get the “women are more peaceful” stereotype, but since that doesn’t work here Dreyfuss shifts over to women as war-loving nags pushing against President Obama’s more rational instincts. As I’ve said before, women are expected to fit into one tiny box – virgin or whore, or in this case pacifist or war monger. Whatever the case, this one role is all we can be whereas men can be understood as complex, rational beings with multiple views. It’s tired, pointless sexism that undermines what could have been a strong critique of the motivations for intervention.

Dreyfuss isn’t the only one deploying this ridiculous argument, though he’s notable for being a lefty when this line’s mostly coming from the right. And it’s incredibly popular right now, the narrative of a hen-pecked president pushed into war by his female advisors. Amanda Marcotte’s take on this line of thinking that makes a lot of (non) sense to me:

During times when Republicans are in charge, the formulation is simple: Support for Republicans + support for foreign wars allows many a conservative man to feel satisfied in his manhood. But when Democrats are in charge, it’s just so hard to handle the cognitive dissonance! The desire to level-up in manhood by having other people put themselves in danger to kill foreigners competes directly with the fear that supporting a Democrat in any way will make you erupt into vaginas. The solution is to paint the war as not a real, manly kind of war.

Katha Pollitt offers a mostly on-point rebuttal to Dreyfuss today:

Whatever you think of the action against Qaddafi—count me as extremely apprehensive—it might just be that someone, even a woman, could support it for a reason other than sheer viciousness…

In any case, the fact that three women argued for it skillfully and won their point is not very interesting. So why stress it, except that it mobilizes a raft of misogynist tropes about castrating females, the dangers of petticoat government and the folly of expecting anything good to come out of gender equality?


Sadly, I do feel I have to call out the off-note with which Pollitt ends an otherwise solid take down:

After all, can you imagine a piece in The Nation titled “Black President Opts for Bombs” or “Qaddafi, a Man, Threatens to Massacre Rebels, Most of Whom Are Also Men”?

Misogyny—it’s the last acceptable prejudice of the left.

No. Please stop. Saying sexism’s more accepted than racism doesn’t help sell your argument or make the sexism seem any more serious, it just demonstrates a lack of knowledge about racism – and, with the sweeping “last acceptable prejudice” comment, every other -ism plaguing us. It’s a tactic I see used way too often, especially by white feminists and white LGBT folks, and it needs to end.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    It’s an unfair comparison at best. Apples versus oranges is putting it lightly.

  • http://feministing.com/members/guerin/ John C.

    This is a great post. Thanks! Back in the ’90s, we saw a similar sort of nonsense, in relation to Albright and Reno (as well as Hillary). And I agree: Katha was right on, for the most part, but pushed it a bit with her ill-considered conclusion.
    Jessica Valenti spoke on our campus last night, so I (and a lot of other folks) got hipped to this site (which kicks ass!).

  • http://feministing.com/members/litendeavors/ Jenny O.

    I haven’t kept up with politics since the primary in 2008. I’m the typical apathetic voter.

    The henpecking framework doesn’t surprise me. What does is that anyone is surprised by it. I ceased to raise my euebrows when people wore shirts asking Hillary to iron theirs.

  • http://feministing.com/members/andyok/ Andy Koch

    Thanks so much for this viewpoint! The line in the media is anti-woman, and it totally eclipses Obama’s considerable pro-war tendencies. After all, Obama has maintained over a hundred thousand troops in Iraq, upped the ante in Afghanistan, performed military actions in Yemen, Somali, and Pakistan.

    • http://feministing.com/members/litendeavors/ Jenny O.

      Politics is all a game of show. And we buy it all the time. We spend way too many hours listening to the talking heads telling how us how to think about something and how to fell about it too.

      You saw this at play during the first election of GW. Suddenly this dissipated, reckless, unaccomplished man was a Texan pullyourselfupbythebookstraps guy? Really? And we bought it? Same thing with Obama, but on the liberal front. I never bought him being as much of a liberal as his followers claimed him to be.

      Our elections will almost always be dictated by the spin-masters, and as long as the majority of the public is more concerned with celeb-reality, and working their asses off to make ends meet (which leaves little time for thinking about politics), things won’t get better.

      So glad you posted this. It got me mad, which is better than being numb.

  • http://feministing.com/members/strugglingtobeheard/ Danielle

    Thanks for sharing this! Women’s identities do seem easier to place into small boxes because of sexism. I must admit even I sometimes find it surprising to hear an aggressively homophobic, sexist, or racist woman because there is still that subtle belief that women are more “peace-loving”. The shifting roles of women however also mean women are now exposed to many viewpoints and can believe in many viewpoints, not just one. Its terrible to frame the military attack of Libya in this light, considering I see it having more to do with power, wealth, and control of assets than gender. These women are simply working to uphold the same power, wealth, and control of assets as some men are. Or perhaps they have a different perspective and are using different reasoning to frame the argument. But to act as if their gender is the only determining factor in what led them to support this position makes the argument so one-dimensional.

    I also agree Katha’s statement at the ended kind of degraded the entire premise. Sexism is certainly not the only acceptable ism by the liberal left and I see some white feminist and LGBT people downplay the roles of racism and class-ism still found within those circles. Sexism may be the more acceptable ism but its hardly the only one still embedded in the psyche of many who still have progressive beliefs.

  • http://feministing.com/members/aneram/ Aneram DeWill

    On the contrary white women talking about sexism being more acceptable does not demonstrate an ignorance of any other ism much less racism. In fact it demonstrates quite the understanding of the American psyche. I believe Pollitt’s comments reflect what many women, ethnicity aside, already know about bias as it relates to isms.

    “For decades, researchers have been probing bias — how it arises, how it changes, how it fades away. Their work suggests that bias plays a more powerful role in shaping opinions than most people are aware of. And they suggest that the American mind treats race and gender quite differently. Race can evoke more visceral, negative associations, the studies show, but attitudes toward women are more inflexible and — to judge by the current dynamics of the presidential race — ultimately more limiting.

    “Gender stereotypes trump race stereotypes in every social science test,” says Alice Eagly, a psychology professor at Northwestern University.

    Pollitt was spot on.

    • http://feministing.com/members/bethany/ Bethany KJ

      I disagree. Jos was pointing out two things:
      1) even if sexism may be stronger, racism is far from unacceptable, it appears everywhere, as does heteronormativity. If you think racism is no longer acceptable, you just aren’t paying enough attention.
      2) regardless, the oppression olympics isn’t useful or helpful, it is just a way of dismissing other serious problems with oppression to highlight one. Can’t sexism just be bad because it’s sexism? No comparisons necessary?

    • http://feministing.com/members/litendeavors/ Jenny O.

      Great comment. I was taking a government class during the primaries of 2008. My government professor was sure that the showdown would be between Obama and Clinton. I agree with him. But, he claimed that the -ism that would lose would be racism. I disagreed and told him the public was far more ready for a black president than a woman president. There were too many men who were just viciously against it.

      It gets complicated when you factor in political affiliation. I still think Sarah Palin dealt with some sexism (ok, a lot), but I really believe that IF we had a female president, the chances are higher than she would be a republican one, especially if she was marketable as “hot.” For some reason, Republicans place a lot of stock in the looks department.

  • http://feministing.com/members/aneram/ Aneram DeWill